03/03/2003 1:00AM

Boo of Week: Medaglia ducks Big Cap


NEW YORK - In the end, fans got the great race in the Santa Anita Handicap they originally hoped for. Only instead of the Bobby Frankel-trained Medaglia d'Oro doing battle with Congaree, it was the Bobby Frankel-trained Milwaukee Brew who took up the fight, and took a photo from Congaree at the end of a truly thrilling stretch battle.

But, just because the Big Cap turned out to be so thrilling doesn't let Frankel off the hook for the decision he made in passing the race with Medaglia d'Oro because of the weight that the horse was assigned.

Surely, it takes some intestinal fortitude to turn your back on a $1 million race the way Frankel did with Medaglia d'Oro - particularly after Jerry Bailey chose to ride your horse, and your horse probably would have gone off the betting favorite. At the same time, it's easier to take this path when you have last year's Big Cap winner as your backup, which is what Frankel had in Milwaukee Brew. At the same time, racing fans weren't clamoring for a Congaree-Milwaukee Brew match up. We wanted a match up between the two hot lions: Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro.

When we didn't get this match up because of such an anachronistic factor as weight, it made some of us see red. Even if you believe as I do that weight is the most overblown component in racing and handicapping, you could see some logic in Frankel taking issue with Medaglia d'Oro having to concede five pounds to Milwaukee Brew. Medaglia d'Oro only beat Milwaukee Brew by a neck for second in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic when he actually pulled five pounds from him.

Still, it is misleading to compare the weights of those two races, because the Big Cap is, of course, a handicap, and the Breeders' Cup Classic is a weight-for-age event. Medaglia d'Oro received five pounds from Milwaukee Brew in the Classic because he was a 3-year-old at the time, and Milwaukee Brew was 5. It's conjecture, but I bet that if that Classic had been run under handicap conditions, the spread of actual weight between Medaglia d'Oro and Milwaukee Brew would have been much less than five pounds, even with the age difference taken into account. In fact, Medaglia d'Oro may have had to give Milwaukee Brew actual weight back then, too.

But, citing the 124 pounds that Medaglia d'Oro was assigned for the Big Cap - which was co-topweight with Congaree - as the reason for not running upset a lot of racing fans, for two reasons. First is the notion that if Medaglia d'Oro were successful Saturday, he would then have to carry two tons of weight by the end of the year. This idea ignores the fact that, at the most, Medaglia d'Oro would be subject to handicap conditions only one or two more times this year. With the Breeders' Cup this year at Oak Tree at Santa Anita, Medaglia d'Oro wouldn't have to leave California all year if he didn't want to. And if he stayed in California, he'd run in weight-for-age races like the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic, and the only time he would be subject to handicap conditions would be in the Goodwood, Oak Tree's prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic. For those who say that doesn't sound like a full campaign, remember, Medaglia d'Oro is a horse who seems to run better with lots of time between starts. And, if he left California for whatever reason - say, for New York - the only suitably premier race in which he would be subject to handicap conditions would be Saratoga's Whitney. The Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup are weight-for-age races.

Also, the notion that if Medaglia d'Oro had won the Big Cap, he would be carrying the grandstand by season's end assumes that Medaglia d'Oro would win every race he runs in. Medaglia d'Oro is a very good horse, but that's awfully presumptuous. The truth is, with the way handicap races are weighted nowadays, Medaglia d'Oro would pick up only a pound or two off a win, and that is only if he were to run back in another handicap, which he wouldn't really have to do. And, of course, if Medaglia d'Oro lost a start, the weight would come off twice as fast if he were to run back in another handicap race.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this whole matter is that the scratch of Medaglia d'Oro suggests a horse being managed with his breeding value in mind. It's bad enough when horses are campaigned with the intention of keeping their records as pristine as possible to inflate their value at stud. But, when this approach encourages people to pass $1 million races that they are favored to win, the situation has gone beyond the tail wagging the dog. When breeding takes precedence over actual accomplishment on the racetrack, the biggest losers are the racing fans. It is the fans and their wagering dollars that create the purses horses race for, and it is the purses horses race for that drives the need for a breeding industry in the first place.